Jee Leong Koh, New York City, March 20, 2017
his is how you create people who get away with murder
who comfortably go unnoticed, rest in this room tone
or a chord of new music that braces the place together
– ‘What Happens When I Try to Stick with My Kind’ by Cynthia Arrieu-King
We are mysteries to one another. We are mysteries to ourselves. To say that we write to find out what we are is but half the truth. We also write to try to tell one another what we find. On the rare and fraught occasion when we succeed in communicating a contingent truth to a contingent reader, we have a poem. I’d suggest that contemporary poetry, from every part of the connected world, is highly conscious of our contingencies – of language, self, and community. The language of discovery – ‘to find out what we are’ – is less true to our experience than the language of creation – to make it up. If we don’t create ourselves, someone else will have created us, and to be modern is to feel deep in our bones the humiliation of living someone else’s script. The best moral impulses of our age, it seems to me, have to do with sparing someone that humiliation. The ironic liberal, as defined by the American philosopher Richard Rorty, is skeptical of final vocabularies and fearful of giving pain. Whether it is the script of war, economic deprivation, or sexual love, to name just three instances, we have to re-write what is handed us, knowing the tremendous difficulty of revising the past for it has made us who we are, and knowing what we have written will have to be re-written for it will suffice only for today. That human task is, perhaps, the most powerful recognition that poetry can afford its readers at this time.